How long has it been since we’ve had a chance to jump into a cool fighter jet, get into an intense dogfight, and just blow up stuff up without having to memorize a thick flight manual? Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown brings the welcome return of a series – and a genre – that’s been long absent from gaming’s mainstream.
The exciting, arcadey flying and dogfighting gameplay that kept Ace Combat going from 1995 to 2014 is still present and a lot of fun. You’ll blow up bombers, chase down ace enemy pilots, and dismantle enemy bases one missile at a time across a wide array of scenarios and landscapes. And even though this is by no means a hardcore flight sim, there’s a fair bit of strategy in planning your attack — your plane is constantly moving, so you need to know what you want to hit and when you want to hit it. Maximizing your efficiency is crucial, because you are always under the gun — either due to a time limit or simply because you have a lot of planes to “splash.”
There are moments, particularly when chasing down with a tricky opponent, when your reflexes are put to the test. All that strategy flies out the window as you focus solely on keeping up with the jet in your sights and lining up that perfect missile lock. You can pick it up and play at a basic level, but dogfighting in Ace Combat is, and has always been, surprisingly complex: there are tricks and advanced maneuvers to figure out using the advanced turning controls that bring lots of nuance to the combat. Figuring out tilting your nose up can slow your forward movement down without losing speed, integrating advanced pitch and yaw controls to tighten up your turns, or simply fine-tuning your sense of the ideal angle from which to approach an enemy fighter to get a quick, decisive shot at them take practice and knowhow. As someone who’s played Ace Combat games before, I came in with some of that knowledge but it still felt like I had a lot to learn.For that reason, I was baffled by the fact that Ace Combat 7 offers little to no help. Whether you’re a new novice player or an old fan returning and looking to take your piloting skills to the next level, there is no training mode and no advanced tutorials. Many mechanics, such as using bombs to attack ground targets, get no instructions at all, even when they’re incorporated into missions. Even on easy, the difficulty meant for those “who are new to the Ace Combat series,” there are a just few text prompts in the opening missions telling you how to brake, accelerate, use your missiles, etc.
The idea that anyone will just pick up this game and know everything they need to do, even if it plays identically to past Ace Combats, is ludicrous. It has been almost five years since the last Ace Combat game, Infinity, and 12 years since Ace Combat 6. Even fans who have followed the series and played every game are likely out of practice. And yet, it expect us to jump back in like no time has passed. It’s still possible to pick up the controls and have a decent time swatting planes out of the sky, especially if you’ve played other Ace Combat games, but it’s definitely a struggle to figure out the ins and outs. You will learn by doing — by failing, crashing, and getting shot down.
That said, you will look good during all of that failure because even though Ace Combat 7 plays like a game from a previous decade, it looks shiny and new. Meticulously detailed jets zip across the sky, weaving among beautiful, craggy mountain ranges and bursting through cloud cover. It’s delightful and always rewards a closer look. As you fly perilously close to a cliff, you can see patches of grass and small discrete rocks on its face. It is not unlike looking out the window in an actual plane. And, of course, that detail adds to the spectacle in combat: When you fly through the smoke and flame of a just-destroyed fighter you can see pieces of shrapnel shooting every which way. Sometimes, explosions are their own reward.
As was a trend among many 2018 games like Forza Horizon 4 and Just Cause 4, the signature feature of Ace Combat 7 (which was at one point intended to come out last year) is an emphasis on detailed weather conditions. Through the 10 to 15-hour campaign you’ll navigate thunderstorms, sandstorms, fog, and more. There’s impressive attention to detail in these conditions — your cockpit glistens with water when you fly through rain and the lighting changes as you fly through clouds of sand. Weather also adds mechanical challenges that make these events feel like a real hazard rather than just window dressing: High winds can change your heading and lightning can strike you, disabling your weapons when you need them most.
What’s frustrating is that in general, developer Project Aces seems dead-set on playing against Ace Combat 7’s strengths in its campaign design rather than emphasizing them. For every fun mission where you blow up a base or take down skilled enemy pilots, who really can throw you for a loop (literally), there’s something far less appealing around the corner, including a wide variety of escort missions and at least three levels with slow, winding stealth sections. Technically, you can go back and replay these missions without the cumbersome objectives after you complete them, which can be fun but feels frivolous since you aren’t making progress or earning currency to buy new planes and upgrades.
Speaking of which, considering how good its planes look, I would have expected to see a more robust hangar mode in which to admire them up close. You can check out the planes you’ve unlocked at any time, but you have to earn new hangars, skins, and other customization elements through the campaign. Even when you do, it feels like there should be more: The skins are mostly limited to variants from the story, which are almost all shades of gray with slightly different accent colors. There’s room for a lot more, from historically accurate renderings or alternate paint jobs to the ability to get into planes’ guts and check out their internal components.
Instead of relying solely on its good gameplay and art design to draw you in, Ace Combat 7 leans heavily on its nonsensical story to move you through its campaign. It returns to the series’ running fictional setting where two nations have suddenly gone to war and you, a disgraced former pilot in prison, are conscripted into a Suicide Squad-like team of prisoner pilots. Despite that description, which sounds like a perfectly light and breezy excuse to get you in the air, the story is poorly explained despite being overwritten and overwrought. Rather than focus on your squadron, the cutscenes and briefings between each pair of missions spend a disproportionate amount of time focused on the politics and macro military strategy of a war between two countries that, unless you’ve played every Ace Combat, you know nothing about.
It feels like the story is supposed to hold the campaign’s missions together, but it is layered on far too thick and only serves to gunk up the experience. There’s a Metal Gear Solid-esque veneer of commentary that alludes to some kind of underlying theme, but veers in so many directions as to obscure any point it may have tried to convey. You might be able to piece together a cohesive thesis from its bits about conscripted prisoners, the interplay between politics and war, and obsessive hand-wringing over drone fighter jets, but to do so would be giving Ace Combat 7 more credit than it deserves.
The worst part about the story is that you can’t really avoid it when it grows tiresome. Even if you skip the cutscenes, there’s a heaping helping of exposition in every mission briefing, which you can also skip but shouldn’t because that’s where your objectives are explained. There’s also a steady stream of inane commentary from your squadmates and mission commands during each level, and you need to pay attention to that dialogue because it sometimes provides context that will help you understand your mission.
And you need all the help you can get on that score, because even though Ace Combat 7 expects you to understand what’s going on at all times it rarely tells you what it wants from you. The descriptions of mission objectives are often defined broadly — protect an ally, take down the enemy bombers, etc. — but often come with specific time limits or procedural constraints that aren’t made clear, so you only find out about them when they cause you to suddenly fail the mission. You can eventually master missions through repetition, learning where enemies come from and honing your response, but that kind of trial and error grinds the flow of most missions to a halt.
You also aren’t always given enough information to properly track your objectives. In one mission where you and your squad must protect a group of fellow pilots you are constantly fed chatter about how different protectees need help, but nothing to tell which pilot, specifically, is calling for help at a given moment save for a temporary blue outline that can only be seen if the pilot is already directly in front of you. Despite each fighter having a character name, the jets are all marked “ally” on your HUD and radar. It adds an element of randomness that the mission does not allow for, since a single downed ally forces you to start over.
It doesn’t help that many of the missions divide your attention across its wide levels. Demanding you take care of multiple problems at once, it often seems as if your missions were designed for a squad of capable pilots working together, but there’s no co-op option. Instead, you are saddled with inept AI teammates who cannot pull their own weight. I technically saw one of them take down an enemy, so it isn’t as if they are completely inert, but they’ll never advance an objective or take down a bogey on your tail.
There’s just enough great gameplay in Ace Combat 7 to catch a glimpse of the “Forza Horizon for fighter planes” I wanted it to be – and that I still hope the Ace Combat franchise will one day become. There’s definitely room in the world for a game that treats jets with the same reverence that arcadey racing sims treat cars, where you can pick up and understand pretty much everything right away (possibly after a tutorial or two).
Though the campaign is certainly the main draw, Ace Combat 7 also has an engaging – if not always satisfying – multiplayer mode. It’s extremely straightforward: whether you’re in an eight-player free-for-all or a team deathmatch between squads of two to four players, the rules are always the same: a score-based dogfight scrum. You earn points by hitting other jets or shooting them down, encouraging a jumble of jets jockeying for position. The player with the highest score, not the most hits or kills, wins.
The Aircraft Tree connects to both the campaign and multiplayer, so you can choose to use any plane bring all the planes you earned in the campaign into multiplayer. You’d think that might give anyone with a lot of time invested a numerical edge, but your plane’s stats and special skills don’t matter nearly as much as you’d think: any player can win with any plane if you really know how fly. That’s good for competitive play, but takes the wind out of the progression system in the long term. It certainly doesn’t help that, of the three classes of plane there’s only one type of plane you’ll ever need.need: the air-to-air fighter. Without ground targets to contend with there’s no point in flying the air-to-ground Attackers or even the balanced Multiroles.
To help balance out the matches where an ace might normally run the table there’s effectively a bounty on the first-, second-, or third-place player, offering a rising number of extra points for hitting or killing them. The bounties add strategy and encourage you to think about who you target, but the system definitely works better in team games. Because the bonuses rise very quickly, just grazing a tough target becomes worth more than two or three times as much as taking down a low-scoring player. In team deathmatch this encourages squads to trade hits, especially if you can force a single fighter to score all of an opposing team’s points, which builds up an enemy bounty and give you an edge.
Free-for-all matches are more chaotic, though, and that strategy becomes a liability: You can score enough kills to take first place, only to suddenly be losing by an insurmountable margin because one of the top three fighters gets shot down.
More importantly, dogfights in multiplayer games tend to play out much slower than the campaign, at least on an individual basis. It’s easy to change your trajectory and dodge a missile, but your targets can as well, meaning it’s harder to hit anybody. You have to bide your time and find the perfect opportunity to take someone down. Given the short match time — every round is limited to five minutes — it is definitely possible to come away having been hit only one or two times and have it feel like you were just in the wrong position at the wrong time. This is especially true when you’re playing with only a few people. One-on-one matches can definitely feel a bit slow, especially because when both players are good pilots the match effectively defaults to a stalemate. This is a real concern because, as a game without a ton of multiplayer support, Ace Combat 7’s scene will likely to consolidate to a small active player base before too long, which will make finding a full match tricky.